A Few Notes on Liberal Protestantism

– A good deal of older liberal Protestantism (Tillich et al) seems to conceive that reality can only really be understood and participated in by virtue of ‘symbols’

– When it comes to Christian beliefs and dogma, the agenda seems to be primarily one of stripping away the time and space elements from Christianity to transform Christianity into a kind of ‘timeless symbol’.

– This idea, as far as I can tell, comes from the belief that the if there are genuine time and space elements within the kerygma, then that entails that the kerygma depends on contingent time and space elements.

– Thus, the time and space elements are stripped away, leaving the ‘timeless’ message (Bultmann, for example).

– I see this as a reaction to the perceived ‘modern’ world, but ultimately a misunderstanding of the ‘modern’ world.

– There’s also a genuine distrust of metaphysics (perhaps this comes from Heidegger?).

– Finally, there is a loss of realism (moreso in, say, Tillich, than in others) – theological statements and formulations don’t have an external reference but have only symbolic value.

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Against the Prophetic Call

I read an article today that irked me – irked me enough to spend a decent amount of time writing this post refuting what I think are some very erroneous views regarding prophecy and the office of the prophet as conceived in the charismatic tradition. The original article (written by Jennifer Leclaire), is here – and I’ll go point by point through it here.

As a bit of a prologue: though I myself come from the Charismatic world and fully believe that the gifts of the Spirit (including healing, signs, etc) are fully operational, it should be noted that this is a heavily contested point – large numbers of devout Christians believe the exact opposite of what I do and present compelling (though in my mind flawed) theological and biblical arguments for the cessationist view.

All traditions acknowledge the prophetic tradition in Scripture (Elijah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel, Isaiah and the Minor Prophets). As a God-ordained office wherein one specific person is raised up to pronounce judgement and blessing on a nation (and in some cases serve the ruling power), however, it is firmly held that such an office ended, or is closed or in some way no longer operative. There is a sense in Scripture that such an office existed in a specific time for a specific purpose and is not meant to continue universally. The Prophets were called to pronounce judgement and blessing on the nation of Israel – to call them back to God when they strayed and to judge them when they continued to and to remind them of their role in God’s redemptive plan. Here I will be comparing two things: the image of the prophet as presented by Leclaire and the image presented by Scripture, and arguing that the former is nowhere near the latter.

Now to the actual article:

There is a lot of confusion regarding the call into prophetic ministry. Many Christians are looking for confirmation. I get email frequently from people asking, “How can I tell if I am called to be a prophet?” This is an important question. In order to walk worthy of your calling, you first need to be confident God has called you. Once you are sure, you can count the cost and decide whether or not to embrace the spiritual battle that lies ahead.

The differences between the prophet presented here and the image given by the biblical witness must be closely examined, because there are some significant divergences. In fact, the language of ‘confirming’ and confidence seems rather foreign to the biblical idea of the prophet. Not only were none of the prophets ‘confident’ that God called them, they often exhibited the exact opposite traits. Jonah ran from God. Elijah ran from God – even after he was what we might call ‘confirmed’. These are not pictures of men exhibiting confidence and God so as to make a decision to wade into spiritual battle.

Although I generally discount “checklists” that tell you whether or not you are an apostle or prophet or operate in some other ministry gifting, there are practical ways for believers to confirm a prophetic calling in their own hearts, which we will discuss in this chapter. And it is safe to say that if you are called into prophetic ministry, mature leaders around you will recognize that call eventually.

This paragraph is fairly telling – the confirmation is essentially an introspective process, which validates the call. The last sentence is especially noteworthy – the undertone is that if one has confirmed their calling in their own heart, then if a leader doesn’t recognize said call, they aren’t a mature leader. This effectively elevates introspection to a level of authority that supersedes almost everything else. Such an idea is quite far from the biblical picture – wherein the prophet was subjected to the judgement of the people if they proved to be false.

There are exceptions to that last point. Some pastors are too insecure to recognize the gifts and callings of those in their midst. But if you are called into prophetic ministry, be assured that people will discern that call in due season. You do not have to make an announcement, try to show off your prophetic gifts or otherwise strive to let people know. God will make it apparent in His time. In fact, waiting for Him to reveal your gifting in public ministry is part of the making process, the course of Holy Spirit training, teaching and practical experience that you will learn about through the pages of this book.

This paragraph ties in closely with the previous one in this way: failure to recognize the gifts may be an insecurity. Now a move has been made that effectively renders the prophetic call-ee immune from criticism: if I have confirmed my calling in my own heart, and you don’t recognize it, then you must just be insecure or immature. But God will make it apparent in his time. The sentiment of God vindicating His called prophet, coupled with the priority of introspective confirmation, allows one who feels ‘called’ to be beyond judgement.

So, are you called into prophetic ministry? Here are two important points to help you address this question.

First, perhaps you received a prophetic word announcing your calling. That could well have been an authentic word, but take the time to look for further confirmation. I have seen prophetic words send sincere believers on spiritual goose chases for gifts and callings that Jesus did not impart. It is sad to see people hold tightly to an erroneous word they believe is genuine and miss God’s true call for their lives.

Perhaps the elevation of introspection as confirmation has something to do with people going on wild goose-chases.

Second, perhaps you are consistently seeing revelatory gifts—such as words of wisdom, words of knowledge and discerning of spirits—manifesting in your ministry. That gives you a hint of your Kingdom vocation. It is actually a better indication that you are called to prophetic ministry than an announcement spoken, say, at the altar by a visiting prophet.

Ideas like this fail to pass any kind of biblical muster. The notion that you slowly grow into prophetic awareness by noticing consistent ‘gifts’ is a notion found nowhere in Scripture. A prophet was a prophet – period. There was no noticing of gifts, no gradual indications. The prophet was grabbed by God, with or without signs, with or without indications verbal or spiritual, and pressed into service. The tying of gifts to the prophetic calling in a necessary way has no biblical merit. None.

Think about it this way: Doctors are educated and trained to practice medicine. That is what they do day in and day out. And they do not just practice medicine at work. They practice medicine at home when someone in the family gets sick. They practice medicine in a restaurant if someone passes out and they hear the cry “Is there a doctor in the house?” Even when doctors retire, they remember the Hippocratic Oath they swore to uphold. Whether they are in the church, the marketplace or the home front, doctors are doctors.

Likewise, if you are called as a prophet, it is an occupation. You cannot turn off the instinct to stand in the office of the prophet any more than a physician can turn off the instinct to help people heal. If you are called to prophetic ministry, you will walk in the revelatory gifts as a way of life, not just occasionally. You will feel the unction to walk in prophetic gifts consistently.

There is no argument that the prophet can ‘turn off’ his vocation. Asserting that to be a prophet = to walk in the ‘revelatory gifts as a way of life’ is unbiblical, plain and simple. In fact, most of the Old Testament prophets exhibited no ‘revelatory gifts’. Far from it, in all actuality – the prophets as a whole were fairly miserable people called to live lives of solitude, sacrifice and pain. One thinks of Hosea marrying a prostitute – was that a way of life dominated by ‘revelatory gifts’?

Modern-day prophetic ministry is more than the usual public perception. It is more than prophesying over people in prayer lines. It is more than having dreams, visions and angelic visitations. Far more. Modern-day prophets are reformers, like John the Baptist. Prophetic ministry should bring positive change and hope. A reformation mindset is part of what it means to be prophetic. Prophets have reformation in their DNA.

Again, one strains to find evidence of any of this in the text of Scripture. To be sure, the biblical prophet did more than have dreams and visitations – however, the prophets, more often than not, brought negative change and despair instead of positive change and hope. Some of the minor prophets brought only despair, as a matter of fact.

Modern-day prophets are called to prepare a people for the Lord by pointing them to an intimate relationship with Jesus (see John 3:29), equipping them to discern His voice (see Ephesians 4:11–12), speaking words of warning or correction that God gives them (see Matthew 3:2–3) and standing in the gap between man and God (see Ezekiel 22:30). Usually this latter function takes place through intercession. Not all intercessors are prophets, but all prophets are intercessors. It is part of the prophetic priestly duty to make intercession. The first time you see the word prophet in the Bible, it is in connection with intercession (see Genesis 20:7). You cannot separate the prophet from prayer because prayer is the prophet’s connection with God and His will.

Here I will only point out that if Leclaire intends to use the Old Testament to validate the modern-day prophet, that means that the whole of the OT must be taken into account, not only bits and pieces – and, as I’ve made clear, this has not happened in Leclaire’s portrait of the prophet. This inconsistency renders the other texts offered as proofs virtually irrelevant.

Modern-day prophets are called to prepare a people for the Lord by pointing them to an intimate relationship with Jesus (see John 3:29), equipping them to discern His voice (see Ephesians 4:11–12), speaking words of warning or correction that God gives them (see Matthew 3:2–3) and standing in the gap between man and God (see Ezekiel 22:30). Usually this latter function takes place through intercession. Not all intercessors are prophets, but all prophets are intercessors. It is part of the prophetic priestly duty to make intercession. The first time you see the word prophet in the Bible, it is in connection with intercession (see Genesis 20:7). You cannot separate the prophet from prayer because prayer is the prophet’s connection with God and His will.

Modern-day prophetic ministry involves turning the hearts of the fathers toward the sons and the hearts of the sons toward the fathers (see Malachi 4:5–6). The Amplified translation calls this turning a “reconciliation produced by repentance of the ungodly.” Prophetic ministry, thus, turns the hearts of believers toward the matters of the Father’s heart. Often, that means a cry for repentance as modern-day prophetic ministry works to separate the holy from the profane (see Ezekiel 42:20).

If you are called as a prophet, you will feel moved to root out and to pull down and to destroy and to throw down and to build and to plant (see Jeremiah 1:10). Intense spiritual warfare will be a frequent reality in your life. You will have a sense—a “knowing”—that you are being called to walk a narrower path than some around you. You will feel a sense of duty to honor God’s will and be crushed with godly sorrow when you misstep.

While I don’t disagree over the importance of intercession, reconciliation, repentance, etc, what I will disagree with is that these are somehow (a) distinctive only of the prophetic office and (b) tied to revelatory gifts (as seen above). In fact, if one is trying to be consistent, it would appear that these things can only happen if accompanied by these kinds of gifts – and this is far from a biblical idea.

Note also the insistence on ‘feeling’ and ‘knowing’ that alert one to being called to walk a narrower path – which, as I’ve shown above, serves to remove the call-ee from any criticism and elevates feelings and introspection to a quasi-divine level. The emphasis on feeling, ‘knowing’ and introspection is another aspect of Leclaire’s thinking that has next to no biblical support – the prophet is confirmed by God, not a few moments of introspection and ‘revelatory gifts’. The image of the prophet as presented by Leclaire is dangerously misleading – focused on signs, gifts and feelings elevated to positions of absolute authority, while failing to take into account the whole of the reality of the office of the prophet (to say nothing of a more or less non-existent biblical/theological method).

For a far more solid look at the idea of prophecy, specifically in the New Testament, see this.

 

Atonement Notes

The first thing to note in any study of the atonement in the early church is that there was no one monolithic view of the atonement. There are large themes that emerge, and some of these themes clearly dominant more than others and some even serve as controlling structures under and through which other aspects of the atonement are brought forward. The controlling element of some of the larger themes is important, because no aspect of the atonement can really be a stand-alone kind of thing, or played off of other themes – the controlling structures are what allow everything to come together in a coherent way. Briefly, then, some of the dominant notes of the atonement are:

Christus Victor – for my part, this is the most important element, for a couple of reasons. First, it provides the overall controlling structure and framework for the atonement as a whole. The victory of Christ over death and the powers in his death and resurrection is a very clearly found in both the Biblical and patristic witness – through his victory he sets free those who are held captive by death. Athanasius was the most important expounder of this view in the early church.

Healing – this theme highlights the ‘what happened to humanity’ part of the atonement. By Christ’s person, life, and work, the corruption and death in humanity is healed (this is tied closely to the hypostatic union, which I won’t go into here). There is a real, objective, ontological change wrought by God in the deepest part of humanity, where the sickness and corruption are healed by Christ’s overthrowing of death and corruption. Athanasius and Gregory Nazanien developed this theme greatly.

Recapitulation – developed in the early church primarily by Irenaeus, the motif of recapitulation has to do with the ‘re-creation’ of humanity, in which the history of humanity in Adam is ‘summed up’ and gone over again, succeeding where Adam failed (it may not be too far off the mark to think of Anselm as elaborating on this theme), and in virtue of that undoing the primal Fall. Irenaeus is most associated with this viewpoint.

Substitution – Christ died in our place being the key thing here. This is also seen in the early church very clearly very early on, though the theme was far from modern formulations of penal substitution. Christ died in our place, as a ransom and a sacrifice – this is a motif that is quite clear in the Biblical and patristic witness and may have the clearest Old Testament parallels – one can hardly open the Old Testament without finding stories of sacrifices.

The extent to which these themes are interwoven should be somewhat easy to see – Christ recapitulates Adam and humanity and succeeds where Adam had failed in his life, and by doing so effects a real healing of human nature. In his death and resurrection he defeats death, and having healed human nature of its sickness of death, opens salvation to all.

What I’m thinking of doing next is working a bit more on how these themes overlap and provide controlling structures for how we think of the atonement.

Brief Notes on the Atonement in the Fathers

The controlling themes that surface in the atonement are basically substitution, Christus Victor, and healing – and these themes are often intertwined with each other. Healing and substitution go together (and you could probably fit these in under recapitulation) and both of those themes are kind of subsumed under Christus victor, which I personally take to be the dominant controlling theme, through and under which the other themes are developed. Under the theme of CV, the themes of substitution and healing cohere into one unified whole.

Israel’s Failure and the Identity of God

A popular and well-known theme often heard from N.T. Wright and his supporters is that Israel failed in her vocation, which was to be a light to the nations, to be instructors of the ignorant and teachers to the immature. This failure is why Jesus, Israel’s God embodied, came. Wright has taken criticism in the scholarly world for overplaying this theme and for making Israel herself the messianic agent (Larry Hurtado argues that there’s no biblical data supporting the idea).

That Israel in some sense failed seems to be a fairly obvious theme in Paul – Romans 2:17-29 is basically an indictment for the failure of ‘the Jew’, who by his boasting both fails in his vocation as teacher and light and blasphemes the name of God among the Gentiles. Israel’s light is broken and dim, and instead of causing other nations to see the greatness of Israel’s god, causes the opposite to happen – the Gentiles want nothing to with God.

It may be here that Wright overplays his hand – though Israel was indeed to be a light, Israel wasn’t the actual agent of salvation but that through which salvation comes. Israel’s failure isn’t so much a failure of its own messianic vocation as a failure of its vocation to pave the way for the messiah.

The problem with which God is faced is that Israel is unfaithful – this is the primary failing on her part, not that she failed to be messianic. Romans 3:2-4 shows that though entrusted with the oracles of God but failing to bring the contents of said oracles to the world, Israel’s unbelief or unfaithfulness appeared to threaten God’s own faithfulness (as a side note, Wright appears to make the Incarnation a bit more contingent than other theologians).

God’s answer to this problem (though some may be uncomfortable with the language of ‘divine problem’, or ‘divine dilemma’, it should be remembered that Athanasius used the same language in ‘On the Incarnation) is reveal His righteousness through the messiah, who is faithful where Israel is not. Through the faithfulness of the messiah, the promises of Abraham are brought to the world. The true light (John 1:9) comes into the world, but this time not just to shine the light into darkness but to be the light of salvation.

Here, then, is where I see a bit stronger ground for the identification of Jesus and Israel by means of vocation. Israel is to a light to those in darkness – Jesus is the light of salvation. Israel is unfaithful, Jesus is faithful, and through his faithfulness God’s righteousness is revealed, where Israel’s unfaithfulness appeared to threaten God’s faithfulness. The identity of Israel with Jesus, then, is one of unfaithfulness/faithfulness in their vocation, as opposed to directly identifying the vocation of Israel/Jesus.

After reading this post, I like the basic point but don’t really feel I did a tight job expounding/arguing for it. Criticisms especially welcome here. Two brief critiques, one from Hurtado and one from Ben Witherington, can be found here.

Another Thought on Responsible Theology

‘Messy’ is a term that gets thrown around a lot in theological discussions – spirituality and theology is said to be ‘messy’, instead of clear, precise, well-defined, etc. This is typically a point made against more systematic forms of theology – but what seems to be the primary motive for terming theology and spirituality as ‘messy’ is an effort to avoid critical engagement and close scrutiny.

To claim that theology and spirituality is ‘messy’ is to absolve the claimant from any responsibility of precision in their theology and spirituality, which removes the claimant from any arguments or criticism. ‘Messy’ spirituality and theology are fundamentally subjective, when you really get right down to it – the messiness effectively locates theology and spirituality away from the objective controlling realities to which our theology and spirituality should conform to. To assert ‘messy’ spirituality and theology is to barricade oneself off from critical inquiry – because how can something inherently ‘messy’ be subjected to logical scrutiny?

What this does, then, is to move theology from the realm of the objective to the realm of the subjective, and once that move is made, the validity of one’s theology and spirituality becomes the same thing as the validity of one’s feelings – and how can the validity of one’s feelings, especially in spirituality be questioned?

An answer to an objection: no, this does not mean that theology and spirituality is a purely objective science concerned with arriving at all of the propositional truths about God – very few people would ever really claim to know every truth about God. However, theology isn’t mere articulation of one’s spiritual experiences, which we can term ‘messy’, and avoid having called into question. Theology, if it is true theology, is done in the service of the church, and so to that extent is authoritative. Yes, there are mysteries, no, we will never know everything about God, the Trinity, or Jesus – this does not mean that we cannot come to conclusions or authoritatively settle certain matters in theology.